How to Fix K-12 Education

David M. Bressoud March, 2008

Standards, intervention, and allocation of resources

This may seem to be several topics. It is really one: guaranteeing equality of opportunity for all students. The first point is that schools cannot know where the problems are if they do not assess what is happening to the students, or, in the words of the McKinsey report, “they can not improve what they do not measure.” And this means both clear and high expectations.

What is really important are the goals. In view of the current national debate about the teaching of K-12 mathematics, I find it interesting that in 1992 Finland improved its education system by replacing its rigid national curriculum with a set of targets for all students. These include a strong focus on core skills in literacy and numeracy in the early years. But Finland also leaves a great deal of flexibility for teachers in how they get their students to meet these goals.

All of the top-performing countries do use examinations to monitor student achievement, but in some of them including Singapore, top-performing schools are exempted from these examinations. In many of these top countries, the frequency of testing decreases as a school shows itself capable of meeting the goals.

Intervention is the next piece, both at the school level—replacing the school leadership and directing additional resources to a given school as soon as a problem is clearly identified—but also intervention at the level of individual students. Finland has an extensive system of special education that students move in and out of as the need arises. In any given year, 30% of their students are in special education, getting individual or small-group attention. Special education is not just for students at risk. Part of what makes it acceptable is that it is also used, on occasion, to provide small group instruction for students who are ready for additional material.

The last point, allocating resources to those places where they will have the greatest impact, seems so obvious it hardly needs stating. Yet, of course, that is not always the situation in the United States.

None of these practices would be easy to bring about in the United States, but we do need to be wary of well-intentioned efforts that work against them, for example decreasing class size by hiring more, but less well qualified teachers. And, as the McKinsey Report suggests, some cities are turning their school districts around by focusing on these practices that work.